There are a lot of quirks about the Pirates’ 2013 season that are worth revisiting when thinking about the upcoming season, but there’s one specifically that’s stuck with me all winter. That’s the gap between the perception of last year’s Pirates — that they were a strong pitching team with an average or slightly below average offense — vs. the advanced statistical profile that suggests that the position players carried a much heavier load than the pitchers did.
To lay the situation out briefly: the Pirates scored 634 runs last year, which was ninth in the National League and their team .709 OPS was eighth in the NL. The Pirates allowed 577 runs, the second fewest in the National League. Their position players had a combined WAR of 29.8, though, and their team wRC+ of 98 was fifth in the National League, whereas their pitchers had a combined WAR of 13.1 (I’m using Baseball-Reference WAR because I think it’s a little more useful for pitchers than FanGraphs, which just translates xFIP into WAR — FanGraphs has a smaller 23/16 discrepancy). Defense doesn’t explain all of that gap, either; of that previously mentioned position player WAR only about 5 wins come from defense.
Now, there are a few ways to explain this. One is that PNC Park has played like a pitcher-friendly park over the last few seasons, so the Pirates’ hitters are always going to be a little better than they seem and their pitchers are always going to be a little worse. I think that PNC tends to get thought of as a neutral park because it’s hard on righties but not on lefties, but the reality seems to be that it’s hard on righties and less-hard on lefties. That doesn’t quite bring the balance back to equal. It also seems safe to guess that the defensive shifts may make some of the calculations more difficult; the Pirates were fifth in baseball in defensive efficiency, which is a straight-up measure of turning balls in play into outs, but they were 15th in UZR and 16th in UZR/150. That difference means that either the Pirates were very lucky defensively last year (as in, there were more “fieldable” balls thrown by their pitchers than other teams, which is maybe not insane because of the number of groundballs that they generated, but it seems like a stretch for it to have made that amount of difference) or that there’s something about the shifts that’s not quite being captured. The final explanation is one you’re familiar with: the reason the Pirates’ offense didn’t score as many runs as was expected is that they were bad at hitting with runners in scoring position (.655 OPS).
Now, PNC Park is obviously not going to change. Whether the Pirates have a team that is specifically well-tailored to fit into an oddly-shaped park in a way that cannot show up in what tend to be pretty broad park factors (hint: I think that yes they probably are) is its own discussion, but that’s not really for today. The question about defense-as-a-whole vs. advanced defensive metrics is pretty interesting, I think, though it’s not necessarily one that I’m well-qualified to answer. The runners in scoring position argument is something that we went over ad infinitum last year. The reality is that there is very little year-to-year correlation between performance with runners in scoring position vs. overall performance. The players on last year’s Cardinals, for example, literally broke the all-time record for highest batting average with RISP one year after hitting a much more pedestrian .264 as a group with runners in scoring position. I’ve wondered if the Pirates’ platoon splits caused them to be worse with runners in scoring position (ie, it’s easier to match up with them late in the game because Walker, Alvarez, Marte, Mercer, and whoever’s at first base can only really hit one type of pitching), but I’m not sure that’s true since the Pirates scored at a similar rate in the seventh and eighth innings as they did in most of the earlier innings. I suppose the point is that there’s nothing that indicates that the Pirates won’t hit better in scoring position this year if they hit the same way that they did last year.
This has all been a long and roundabout way of saying that last year’s Pirates were, from a sabermetric standpoint, a much more balanced team than most of us realized. That’s good news, of course, because the composition of the pitching staff has changed in 2014, while the position players remain largely unchanged (the AJ Burnett to Edinson Volquez drop is much bigger than the Garrett Jones to Travis Ishikawa/Andrew Lambo drop).
Realistically, that’s gives us the largest question heading into 2014. The Pirates’ pitching staff is almost certainly going to be worse over the course of this year than it was last year. I understand the argument that they’re better on Day 1 of 2014 than they were on Day 1 of 2013, but there are so many questions right now and the depth is so questionable with Jameson Taillon’s injury that I’d be legitimately surprised to see the Pirates finish second in the NL in runs allowed again. At the same time, I also expect the Pirates to score more runs in 2014. I think that just coupling an improvement in hitting with runners in scoring position with some progress by Starling Marte and maybe Pedro Alvarez, and putting that together with more Jordy Mercer playing more regularly at short (I know I’ve expressed doubts about him, but he has to be a better hitter than Barmes was last year) and an improved right field situation through a (hopefully) healthy Jose Tabata and Gregory Polanco could turn the Pirates into a pretty dynamic offensive team. Certainly they had stretches in 2013 where that’s what they looked like.
Of course, answering the question, “Can the Pirates’ offense off-set regression from the pitching staff” is really hard right now. That’s the situation that the Pirates’ quiet off-season has left the team in; removing the stability of AJ Burnett makes the pitching staff much less of a known quantity right now. It seems likely that having durability issues for literally the entire Opening Day starting rotation (I guess Gerrit Cole has age issues rather than durability ones) means that they’ll be weaker, but it’s virtually impossible to have any idea how the rotation is going to play out this year. On the flip side, by not making any changes in the lineup beyond a more or less lateral switch at first base, any expected offensive improvement has to come from existing players and changes in luck. Both of those things are awfully difficult to anticipate in a useful way.
Barring a last second trade, that’s where things are for the Pirates on Opening Day, though. They aren’t actually in a bad situation right now, it’s just that they’re in an highly uncertain one. I’ve been writing a bit this week about what made the off-season so hard to swallow and I think the knowledge that the Pirates would be in a much better situation with just a little bit more certainty is a big part of it.